How Islam Inspired Scientific Advance

The impact of Islam permeated so many spheres of knowledge and produced phenomenal achievements that one is amazed. This article highlights some of these areas and achievements.

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Figure 1. Suleyman Pasa Madrasa, Iznik, Turkey.

Islamic civilisation sprang into existence from the time of the Prophet in the 7th century. The Prophet gave the lead, teaching in the mosque, and from the mosque learning would evolve the first universities in history: Al-Qayrawan (9th century), followed by al-Qarawiyyin, then Cordoba, and then Al-Azhar [1]. Within the lifetime of the Prophet the first hospital was set up, a mobile dispensary followed the Islamic armies; a tradition which remained throughout the centuries of Islamic glory [2]. From the design of his Mosque sprang Islamic construction and design [3].

During the time of the second Caliph, Omar (634-44) the first technological breakthroughs began, the first windmill being erected during the time of this great caliph [4].

Imam al-Bukhari (b. 810), and Islamic Tradition, are the origins of our modern scientific method. From the Hadiths of the Prophet, a mass of some 600,000, Imam al-Bukhari selected only 2760 hadiths [5], and to determine the reliability of a given tradition (hadith), the chain of transmission and the text were examined separately, although more attention was given to the individual transmitters; thus a seemingly reliable text was rejected because of a faulty chain of transmitters [6]. Before Islam this process had never previously existed. Under Al-Bukhari's influence, Spectorsky insists, strict rules were developed for accurate copying of manuscripts of tradition collections [7]. Today referencing is an extension of Al-Bukhari's influence.

The centuries of Islamic supremacy are best caught in the words of Scott:

"The genius of the Arabian people advanced rapidly in the path of civilisation, while the dense and sluggish intellect of the northern barbarians, who, in their origin, were not less ignorant, remained stationary. It took Spain, under the Moslems, less than half a century to reach a point in human progress, which was not attained by Italy under the popes in a thousand years. The capacity of the Muslim mind to absorb, to appropriate, to invent, to develop, to improve, has no parallel in the annals of any race. [8]"

Pedersen notes "The rooting of intellectual life in religion, the basis of Muslim society," He continues "created a respect for it such that rulers and rich men opened their doors to the representatives of the intellectual life and frequently lavished large sums of money on them. [9]"

Islam is said to be responsible for the fantastic tales of bags of jewels and gold paid for a few pages of a rare pharmacological or astronomical manuscript and also of travel of thousands of miles in search of a person who might provide an insight into a mathematical problem [10]. Thousands upon thousands became seekers of knowledge, criss-crossing the vast Muslim land mass of the Asian, African and European continents in order to acquire and disseminate knowledge among Muslims and non-Muslims alike [11]. This is not surprising considering the numerous sayings of Prophet Muhammad praising learning.

What spurred such a quest for learning was the conviction of its dutiful character; one amongst other duties of the faith. "It became a matter of popular belief, as firmly grounded as the most sacred tradition, that the diligent cultivation of the mental faculties was an imperative religious duty," says Scott [12]. Al-Faruqi notes how Islam identifies with knowledge, and so makes knowledge its condition and its goal, equating the pursuit of knowledge with ibadah (worship) and pouring lavish praise on those who committed themselves to knowledge [13]. Sardar further insists that Islam did not just make learning a duty, it also made it an act of worship, and as such, knowledge is pursued in obedience to, and for the pleasure of Allah [14]. Sayili, equally, observes this intricate link between the duty of faith and learning, impacting on the creation of institutions of learning: hospitals, universities, or public libraries, all taking "firm root" in Islam, "where piety and learning were in many respects inseparable [15]." Some of the best and most eloquent praises of science ever written came from the pens of Muslim scientists who considered their work to be acts of worship; such as the great Andalusian scholar Abu Umar Yusuf al-Qartubi (d. 1071), whose book the Comprehensive Account of the Enlightenment and Virtue of Science, has no contemporary parallel [16]. The same motives inspired such great institutions as the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) of Baghdad, the Shamsiya observatory and Al-Azhar University[17].

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Figure 2. A 1959 Moroccan stamp commemorating Al-Qarawiyyin University which was established in 859CE in Fez.

The Mosques were instantly turned into classrooms, and so were the streets, marketplaces, and private homes [18]. Al-Ghazali, al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina, amongst many more, after teaching in public schools, retired to their private libraries and studies, and continued teaching "those fortunate enough to be invited [19]." "It was this great liberality," says Wilds "which they [the Muslims] displayed in educating their people in the schools which was one of the most potent factors in the brilliant and rapid growth of their civilisation. Education was so universally diffused that it was said to be difficult to find a Muslim who could not read or write [20]." Scott found, that even the blind "though hampered by the unkindness of nature, were still able, in that age of intellectual rivalry, to attain a high rank in the scale of literary excellence [21]." However, it was not just the teachers as Artz notes, who were held in high esteem in Islam, but pupils, equally. The large libraries collected by the wealthy landed aristocrats and merchants, Artz observes, showed that like during the Italian Renaissance six centuries later, knowledge "was one of the marks of a gentleman [22]."

Islam also made self-improvement of the individual and the betterment of society part of religious duty, inspiring individuals in all manners and forms. As Islam does not permit priesthood or a religious hierarchy, Sardar explains, it commands each and every believer to seek knowledge and be aware of his/her obligations and responsibilities to society as well as to God [23]. Thus, in Islam, the pursuit of knowledge is both a personal and social obligation. Draper also tells that the Muslims did not "merely shake off that dead weight which clogs the movement of a nation - its inert mass of common people; they converted that mass into a living force. National progress is the sum of individual progress; national immobility the result of individual quiescence [24]."

Following this, it was natural for Islamic science to work towards solving the problems of the community [25]. This was early made clear by Muslim scholars. Hence Hujwiri says:

"Knowledge is obligatory only in so far as is requisite for acting rightly. God condemns those who learn useless knowledge, and the Prophet said: ‘I take refuge with Thee from knowledge that profited naught.' Much may be done by means of a little knowledge and knowledge should not be separated from action. The prophet said: ‘The devotee without divinity is like a donkey turning a mill' because the donkey goes round and round on its own tracks and never makes any advances [26]."

In Islam, the scientist and the learned make the plea to God to grant them the grace and strength to carry through the enterprise, and that his science should be useful (ilm naafah) [27]. Knowledge in Islam, Sardar explains, should be put into practice, "otherwise the ignorant person would appear better than the scholar [28]." In fact, knowledge and action (al-ilm wal amal) are inseparable, and the greatest virtue along with the practice of goodness is to teach and implement knowledge [29]. When the Muslims at the beginning of their ascendancy directed their attention to intellectual activity, Farukh notes, they turned first of all to the practical sciences, that is, those which would yield them an immediate profit, either in private individual life or in the religious life of the community, such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine [30]. Islamic science, in the words of al-Faruqi, is neither "an involuntary flash in the consciousness... nor is it some esoteric information obtained on authority after initiation, or an illumination arrived at subjectively through contemplation. Rather, Islamic knowledge is the rational-empirical and intuitive-apprehension of every realm of reality. It is the critical knowledge of man and history, of earth and heaven. It is the practical knowledge that produces results and leads to virtue, the object of the Muslim's prayer `Oh God! Grant us a knowledge that is useful and beneficial [31]."

The practice of Islam, as a faith, itself, spurred scientific growth in its very fundamentals, and fundamentally. Arithmetic was desirable because it enabled Muslims to calculate inheritances and to count days and years; geometry helped find the direction of the Qiblah and the pilgrimage routes and from astronomy Muslims could determine the beginning of Ramadan and the great feasts, and fix the time for prayers [32]. The Muslims considerably improved techniques of astronomical observation and cartography because they needed accurate determination of positions for the correct orientation of the mosques [33]. During the period of installation and consolidation of Muslim power in Spain and of the Maghrib, Djebbar explains, medicine and calculation were the first scientific disciplines to have benefited from teaching, followed by the publication of works, and this to respond to the needs of certain well-to-do ranks of society of the cities, or to the solicitations of lawyers for the solution of certain problems such as those involved in land measurement or in the partitioning of inheritance [34]. Djebbar dwells on the Moroccan mathematician, Ibn al-Banna, whose Tanbih al-albab contains precise mathematical answers to the calculation of the drop of irrigation canals, the arithmetical explanation of a verse of the Qur'an concerning inheritance, the determination of the hour of the third daily prayer, the enumeration of delayed prayers which have to be said in a precise order and the exact calculation of legal tax in the case of a delayed payment[35].

The demands of the faith for order and perfection shaped early Islamic society. An early orderly nation developed, where from administrative organisation, to urban construction, to dispensing justice, or promoting science, all evolved in harmony. This search for perfection is also obvious when one reads how libraries, hospitals, and madrasas were managed, and ran to standards so difficult to approach these days by their co-religionists. It was the same in farming as in learning.

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Figure 3. The drawing of Ibn al-Haytham on a Pakistan stamp. The stamp reads: Ibn Al-Haitham Father of optics (965-1039).

For any mind, seeking to have a glimpse of such perfection, all that is needed is to gaze at the decoration, or design of buildings from that era. No further evidence would be needed after that.

Islam, by its very nature, acted as a powerful foundation for science, and above all the use of reason. Davenport explains that Islam as a religion stripped of all controversy, does not offer violence to reason, and does not restrict the imagination of men, and it is a religion where there is no place for martyrs, saints, relics, and images, or mystery and metaphysical subtlety. Instead, it reconciles religion with reason [36].

Al-Faruqi offer an excellent outline on this relationship between the Islamic faith and rationalism, and how Islamic civilisation was propelled forward by such a linkage, "…and they (people) conclude that the intelligent Muslim is a rationalist as he insists on the unity of two sources of truth, namely revelation and reason" [37].

Al-Faruqi also holds that as a methodological principle, rationalism is constitutive of the essence of Islamic civilisation. It consists of three rules of laws: first, rejection of all that does not correspond with reality; second, denial of ultimate contradictories; third, openness to new, and/or contrary evidence. The first rule protects the Muslim against opinions that are against making any untested, unclaimed claims to knowledge [38]. This leads to the other fundamental impact of Islam on the rise of modern science.

The Muslim predecessors, the Greeks, above all, excelled at speculation; under the Muslims, knowledge through istidlal (calling for evidence), seeking through evidence to make the unknown known, became fundamental. Istidlal, Al-Faruqi noted, implies "observation of the data and their examination through experimentation, measurement and more observation...[39]". In following such a precept, Ibn al-Nafis declared that dissection had proven both Galen and Ibn Sina wrong; whilst al-Biruni refused to accept any statement without testing it in experience and confirming it by examination [40]. They developed instruments to correct and expand the sensory evidence, and would repeat experiments as a means to test results and avoid error. Jabir ibn Hayyan had a special name for scientific experiment, al- tadrib; and ibn al-Haytham called it al-itibar [41]. It is this search for absolute accuracy, as demanded by the faith, which imposed itself upon Islamic sciences, and this is why Muslim science embraced the knowledge of the sky and stars (astronomy) as well as surgery and ophthalmology with such precise and meticulous attention to detail that amazes us today [42]. This is also why the Muslims were the first to devise accurate sea charts, and their maps guided navigators precisely in the then big unknowns and mysteries of the seas and oceans. This is why the Muslims were never happy with the ineptitude and inaccuracies of Greek science. This is also why the Muslims carried precise observations and devised extremely accurate instruments [43]. The Muslims achieved a great deal such as making measurements of weights and densities that modern day science agrees with, designing mechanical gears that revolutionised engineering; designing and constructing dams that still function in Spain today, and writing pharmaceutical formula still current [44].

Faith also impacted on the acts and deeds of rulers in the scientific experience, such as observed by Wiet et al:

"According to the terms of his political testament, the sovereign was bound to make enquiry into all that concerned religion, the obligations it imposed and its traditions [45]."

The role of al-Ma'mun as an enthusiastic patron of scientific activity at Baghdad is paralleled by that of al-Hakam II a century later at Cordoba. Al-Hakam sent emissaries to Egypt and Iraq, among other Muslim countries, in search of books, and built one of the largest personal libraries in history. He also employed copyists to duplicate rare manuscripts and generally encouraged scholars in all sciences [46]. Al-Moktadir, King of Saragossa, was renowned for his erudition, and his knowledge of philosophy, geometry and astronomy, whilst Al-Modhaffer, King of Badajoz, compiled a great encyclopaedia [47]. The Aghlabid rulers of Tunisia (800-909) propelled the country and its capital to the zenith of its prosperity [48]. They vied with each other in enriching the city with rich monuments and multiplied the works of public utility [49]. They erected bazaars, baths, and large parks and gardens [50], great engineering works, such as the huge water storage basins, a number of aqueducts and bridges, and complex sewerage systems [51].

The ruler's more obvious contribution was in the financing and promotion of the construction of thousands of learning institutions in their rich varieties: madrasas, libraries, scientific academies, etc… Ibn Jubayr having seen a great many madrasas in Muslim lands commented that they were "the finest proofs of the glory of Islam [52]." Both rulers and wealthy citizens gave their financial support to both learners and those who dispensed it. The Mamluk Prince, Yalbagha al-Umari in one instance amongst many, ordered that each student at the mosque of Ibn Tulun (Cairo) be given forty dirhams every month [53]; and Husam al-Din Lajin paid salaries for Professors and stipends for students [54].

Possibly unique in the history of Muslim lands, such Mamluk rulers also showed great tolerance for the activity of the scholars, supporting an elite of open minds, and allowing teaching to take place "in a climate of great freedom [55]."

Sarton is full of admiration for the fervour, which led to the great Islamic medieval accomplishments in science. To him, such Islamic medieval fervour had not just unique traits, it was both a source of the Western revival, and ought to be the source of revival of modern Muslim society. He thus, states:

"In this, their leading men realised clearly that if one wishes to obtain scientific knowledge, it will not do at all to begin at the top with the latest applications; one must begin at the roots with the first principles. It is easy to collect ripe fruits at the top of a tree, any fool can do that; it is more difficult to reproduce sound fruit trees which will give abundant fruits in their season. That is the lesson which the people of the Middle East must learn again today. There is no short road to science. It is easy to instruct mechanics and not very difficult to train engineers, but the education of a man of science is a long and arduous process. The way to science is hard, without rest and endless. Creative achievements in science or learning require a man's uninterrupted devotion for many years, if not for a life time. Life itself is too short and each man of science bequeaths unsolved problems to his successors.

There is no reason why the Arabic people of today should not emulate their ancestors and assume again a position of leadership. It is not by any means easy and it is becoming more difficult every day, but it can be done [56]."


[1] J. Ribera: Disertaciones Y Opusculos, 2 vols. Madrid 1928.

[2] A. Djebbar: Une Histoire de la Science Arabe; Le Seuil; Paris; 2001. p. 319.

[3] F. B. Artz: The mind, The Mind of the Middle Ages; Third edition revised; The University of Chicago Press, 1980. pp. 172-4.

[4] Al-Tabari: Selection from the Annals (edit. de Goeje, Leiden, 1902, p. 1, in R.J. Forbes: Studies in Ancient technology; vol II, second revised edition, Leiden, E.J Brill, 1965, p. 116.

[5] J. Robson: Al-Bukhari; Encyclopaedia of Islam; New Series; Vol. 1; pp. 1296-7: p. 1296:

[6] S. Spectorsky: Al-Bukhari; Dictionary of the Middle Ages; vol 2; pp. 397-9; at p. 398.

[7] S. Spectorsky: Al-Bukhari; op cit.; p. 398.

[8] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; Vol 1; p.324.

[9] J. Pedersen: The Arabic Book, op cit.; p 21.

[10] I. R. and L.L Al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas of Islam; McMillan Publishing Company New York, 1986; p.232.

[11] M.H. Sadar: Science and Islam, is there a conflict; in The Touch of Midas; op cit.; pp. 15-25; at p.19.

[12] S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit.; Vol 1; p.64.

[13] I.R and L.L. Al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas; op cit.; pp.230-2.

[14] Z. Sardar: Explorations in Islamic Science; Mansell; London; 1989; p. 82.

[15] A. Sayili: The Observatory in Islam; Publications of the Turkish Historical Society, Series VII, No 38, Ankara, 1960. p. 1.

[16] Z. Sardar: Explorations in Islamic Science; op cit.; p. 12.

[17] Z. Sardar: Explorations in Islamic Science; op cit.; p. 12.

[18] I.R and L.L. Al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas; op cit.; pp.230-2.

[19] M. Nakosteen: History of Islamic origins of Western education: 800-1350; University of Colorado Press; Boulder; Colorado; 1964. P.48.

[20] E.H. Wilds: The Foundation of modern Education, Rinehart & Co., 1959, p. 216.

[21] S.P. Scott: History; op cit.; Vol. 3: p. 431.

[22] F.B. Artz: The mind, The Mind of the Middle Ages; Third edition revised; The University of Chicago Press, 1980. p.151.

[23] M.H. Sadar: Science and Islam, op cit.; p. 18.

[24] J.W. Draper: A History; op cit.; vol. 1; p.339.

[25] M.H. Sadar: Science and Islam; op cit; pp.22-4.

[26] Kashf al-Mahjub; R.A. Nicholson (trans); Brill; Leiden; p. 11.

[27] I.R. and L.L. Al-Faruqi: The Cultural; op cit.; p.230.

[28] Z. Sardar: Explorations in Islamic Science; op cit.; p. 84.

[29] Z. Sardar: Explorations; p. 84.

[30] O.A. Farukh: The Arab Genius in Science and Philosophy; American Council of Learned Societies, Washington, D.C, 1954; p.35.

[31] I.R. and L.L. Al-Faruqi: The Cultural; op cit.; p.230.

[32] O.A. Farukh: The Arab Genius; op cit.; p.35.

[33] G.T.H. Kimble: Geography in the Middle Ages; Methuen and Co; London; 1938; p. 63.

[34] A Djebbar: Mathematics in medieval Maghreb; AMUCHMA-Newsletter 15; Universidade Pedagógica (UP), Maputo (Mozambique), 15.9.1995.

[35] Al-Ballagh; Djebbar, 1995, b, in A Djebbar: Mathematics.

[36] J.Davenport: An Apology; op cit.; p. 80.

[37] I and L. Al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas; op cit.; p. 79.

[38] I and L. Al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas; op cit.; p. 79.

[39] I. And L.L. Al Faruqi: The Cultural; op cit.; p. 322.

[40] See for instance the detailed account of Al-Biruni's experiment at Nandana; in N.A. Baloch: Biruni and his experiment at Nandana; in ERDEM 3 (1987); pp. 673-729.

[41] I.R and L.L Al Faruqi: The Cultural; op cit.; p. 322.

[42] See for instance:
E.S. Kennedy: Astronomy and astrology in the medieval Islamic world; Aldershot; Variorum; 1988.
H.R. Turner: Science in medieval Islam; Austin; Texas; 1997.

[43] See: for instance: H. Edwards: Patterns and precision: the arts and sciences of Islam; Washington; 1982.

[44] See: D.R. Hill: Science and engineering in Islam; Edinburgh; 1993.
N. Smith: A History of Dams, The Chaucer Press, London, 1971.

[45] J. W. G. Wiet et al: History of mankind; Vol. III: The Great Medieval Civilisations. Part Two: section two; Part three; Translated from the French; UNESCO; 1975. p. 458.

[46] A.I Sabra: The Scientific Enterprise, in Islam and the Arab World, ed. B. Lewis, London; 1996; pp. 181-92, at p. 190.

[47] S.P. Scott: History; Vol 3; op cit.; p. 430.

[48] G. Iver: Kairawan; Encyclopaedia of Islam; first series vol. 4; pp. 646-9. at p. 647.

[49] G .Iver: Kairawan; p. 647.

[50] G. Iver: Kairawan; p. 647.

[51] S and N. Ronart: Concise encyclopaedia of Arabic civilization; The Arab West; Djambatan; Amsterdam; 1966. pp. 37-8.

[52] Ibn Jubayr, in F. Michaud: The Scientific Institutions in the Medieval Near East; in Encyclopaedia of the History of Arabic Science; Edited by R. Rashed, 3 vol; Routledge; London; 1996; op cit.; p. 999.

[53] Al-Makrizi, Ahmad Ibn Ali. Al-mawaiz wa Alitibar fi dhikr al-Khitat wa-Alathar. Edited by Ahmed Ali al-Mulaiji. 3 Vols. Beirut: Dar al-Urfan. 1959. Vol 3, pp. 222-3.

[54] J. Berkey: The Transmission of knowledge in Medieval Cairo, Princeton University Press, 1992; pp 52-4.

[55] F Micheau: The Scientific Institutions, op cit.; p. 994.

[56] G. Sarton: The Incubation of Western Culture. pp. 41-2.

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